5 March 2022

Watching mimic octopus videos today, and thinking about how cephalopod camouflage techniques might be a better analogy than “masking” for autistic survival skills. I don’t find “masking” that apt a term; it suggests a level of planning and volition, like, “ok, better mask up so I can blend in with the cool kids.” Like you’re donning a disguise or something. Mimicry in nature — the mimic octopus variety, at least — isn’t a matter of strategic decision-making; it’s just an organism sensing danger and doing what it has to do to avoid that danger. My experience of autistic masking has been much more like that. We don’t choose to mimic the people around us for personal gain or even because we want to be like them or even necessarily to be liked by them; we do it unconsciously because somehow at a cellular level we sense, rightly or wrongly, that our survival depends on it. Apparently mimic octopuses will even camouflage as their own predators in order to escape danger, which sounds a lot like my life from grade seven through high school, honestly. And this is what makes the concept of “unmasking” so difficult for me to wrap my head around; if what we’re calling “masking” is an involuntary response to environmental conditions (the presence of threats to safety), then how can you ever not do it while those environmental conditions remain the same?